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A Peek from the Peaks of the PROs: the ASCAP, BMI and SESAC CEOs Speak

Yesterday, the Association of Independent Music Publishers (AIMP) sponsored a luncheon where veteran entertainment lawyer Bob Donnelly interviewed the CEOs of the three performing rights organizations (PROs): ASCAP’s John LoFrumento, BMI’s Mike O’Neill and SESAC’s Pat Collins. The meeting took place before a packed house in the performance space at the barbecue joint, Hill Country, in Manhattan and it was the heads of the organizations, rather than any of the musicians they represent, who took the stage for a discussion that lasted about 90 minutes.

Rather than having a panel discussion, Donnelly interviewed each leader separately while the other two left the room, supposedly to avoid any possibility of collusion. O’Neill, who spoke last, joked that he LoFrumento had a nice chat while Collins was interviewed. And after the meeting, a senior BMI executive confirmed to me that the theatrics were not legally required and further stated that “if I were going to collude with ASCAP I wouldn’t do it in front of the entire music industry.”

Topics included the Department of Justice (DOJ) review of the ASCAP and BMI Consent decrees and the proposed Songwriter Equity Act, subjects I’ve previously written about here and here. The ASCAP and BMI Rate Court proceedings with Pandora were also a major topic of discussion as was the development of the MusicMark portal for registering works.

Much ink has been spilled over the Pandora decisions in the ASCAP and BMI Rate Courts, entities I’ve previously discussed. In short, both Rate Court judges largely sided with Pandora, with LoFrumento noting that all of ASCAP’s proposed rate-setting benchmarks were rejected by Judge Cote and O’Neill discussing BMI’s similar fate. One of the central issues in both cases was the ability of a publisher to withdraw certain digital rights from the PROs and license them to users directly while remaining a member of the particular PRO for all other uses, such as terrestrial broadcast and live performances. Both Judges said “no” with O’Neill stressing that the ASCAP judge said the publishers were “all in” while the BMI judge said that the publishers would be “all out,” meaning none of their repertoire would be covered by a BMI license if they withdrew. Both cases are on appeal.

The attempts by major publishers such as Sony/ATV to withdraw digital rights and do deals directly with licensees could have a significant impact on PRO revenues and the ability for independent publishers to obtain comparable terms. That said, the consensus was that partial withdrawal of rights should be permitted, instead of the Rate Court rulings of “all in” or “all out” as this flexibility fosters competition. Regarding withdrawal, Donnelly asked both LoFrumento and O’Neill what would happen if a publisher were to withdraw rights but the writer did not. Both were equivocal, with O’Neill elaborating that the situation would require a case-by case evaluation of many factors, including provisions in the publisher and writer contracts and the status of any advances.

In the discussion of the Rate Court Proceedings, the Songwriter Equity Act and the DOJ Consent Decree Review, all three leaders stressed that the rules for music licensing (emphasizing performance, but including mechanicals) need to be changed from current benchmarks to market rates, with consideration of what a willing buyer and seller would negotiate as the appropriate rate-setting inquiry. All maintained that the current rate-setting system has significantly undervalued music for decades.

LoFrumento, Collins and O’Neill were all in favor of scrapping the ASCAP and BMI Rate Courts, which lead to very lengthy and costly litigation, and replacing them with arbitration. For example, LoFrumento stated that 10% of ASCAP’s costs are paid to outside counsel. The CEOs favor a three-member arbitration panel whose members would have music industry expertise and would serve limited terms, unlike Rate Court judges who serve indefinitely.

Given the discussion of Consent Decree reform, competition was a theme throughout the discussion. When asked about SESAC being at a disadvantage because, unlike ASCAP and BMI, it has to earn a profit for its private equity owners, Collins stated that they, like all private companies, have to compete and that “nobody joins SESAC to be paid less.” However, he conceded that unlike ASCAP and BMI, SESAC does not disclose what percentage of their revenue is paid to writers and publishers. And O’Neill, when asked about Irving Azoff’s new venture that includes licensing performing rights, chuckled and replied: “Competition is good no matter what, even if it’s bad.” He went on to say that BMI started as a competitor to ASCAP and that competition made both companies stronger.

The three leaders all seemed to agree that the future for the PROs is for each to be an efficient portal for licensees, a one-stop shop for music users. This would entail some form of bundling of music rights ( e.g., mechanical and synch rights, in addition to performing rights) which would need to be allowed under the Consent Decrees. They also indicated that while technology continues to allow for movement from sampling to a census of performances, some areas, such as “general licensing” including payment on performances in clubs, do not lend themselves to a census.

With regard to creating a more efficient environment, both LoFrumento and O’Neill touted their collaboration with SOCAN on MusicMark, a portal which allows publishers to register works only once if they use common works registration or electronic batch registration formats and those works will be registered with all three organizations. MusicMark, however, is not being built as a hub for licensing, which would still be done separately by each of the PROs.

When asked why SOCAN, rather than SESAC was an initial collaborator, O’Neill replied that SOCAN, unlike SESAC, already has both ASCAP and BMI data and they were the logical partner to help reconcile the data. LoFrumento stated he expects MusicMark to be operational in 2015 and the goal is to create a hub where others, including SESAC, HFA and CMRRA could participate. When asked if SESAC plans to join, Collins stated “we applaud the initiative and have an interest in being part of it and we’ll see how it goes but we’re not part of it today.”

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Regardless of what type or genre of music one writes, income from public performances has always been, and continues to be, a critical component of any composer’s income. All composers should be aware of the continuing market, legislative and legal challenges the PROs face – and the entities that are posing these challenges to their ability to earn a living. It’s not often that the CEOs of all three PROs share the same stage – even if not at the same time – and the fact that each of them sees becoming a one-stop for a variety of music rights licenses as critical to their future success is something worth noting.